Motor Vehicle Accidents - An Overview
Cases arising out of automobile accidents are by far the most common type of personal injury case in our court system today. This is not surprising, given that every ten seconds, someone in the United States is involved in a car accident, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Except in those states where legislation eliminating fault as an issue has been passed (no-fault laws), these cases are typically governed by the law of negligence. Generally, people who operate automobiles must exercise "reasonable care under the circumstances." A failure to use reasonable care is considered negligence. A person who negligently operates a vehicle may be required to pay for any damages, either to a person or property, caused by his or her negligence. The injured party, known as the plaintiff, is required to prove that the defendant was negligent, that the negligence caused the accident, and that the accident caused the plaintiff's injuries.
As with other types of accidents, figuring out who is at fault in a traffic accident is a matter of deciding who was negligent. In many cases, your instincts will tell you that a driver, cyclist or pedestrian acted carelessly, but not what rule or rules that person violated. An attorney will look to a number of sources to help you determine who was at fault for your accident, such as police reports, state traffic laws, and witnesses. Courts look to a number of factors in determining whether a driver was negligent. Some of these factors include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Disobeying traffic signs or signals
- Failing to signal while turning
- Driving above or below the posted speed limit
- Disregarding weather or traffic conditions
- Failing to drive on the right side of the road
- Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol
Other Causes of Automobile Accidents
- Reckless Driving: A driver may also be liable for an accident due to his or her intentional or reckless conduct. A driver who is reckless is one who drives unsafely, with "willful and wanton disregard" for the probability that such driving may cause an accident. A driver could be found reckless, for example, if he or she drives in a threatening or harassing manner out of "road rage" and causes an accident. (Criminal charges will also stem from such behavior.) Road rage is defined as "an assault with a motor vehicle or other dangerous weapon by the operator or passenger(s) of another motor vehicle or an assault precipitated by an incident that occurred on a roadway."
Statistics compiled in 1997 by NHTSA and the American Automobile Association showed that almost 13,000 people had been injured or killed since 1990 in crashes caused by aggressive driving. According to a NHTSA survey, more than 60 percent of drivers consider unsafe driving by others, including speeding, a major personal threat to themselves and their families. About 30 percent of respondents said they felt their safety was threatened in the last month, while 67 percent felt this threat during the last year.
Traffic safety and law enforcement organizations are renewing efforts to identify and penalize aggressive drivers: those who speed, tailgate, zip from lane to lane, flash headlights in frustration, and engage in other dangerous driving practices. The NHTSA defines aggressive driving as a progression of unlawful driving actions such as:
- Speeding: exceeding the posted limit or driving too fast for conditions;
- Improper or excessive lane changing: failing to signal intent, failing to see that movement can be made safely, or
- Improper passing: failing to signal intent, using an emergency lane to pass, or passing on the shoulder.
If you are confronted by an aggressive driver, the NHTSA recommends that you take the following actions:
- Get out of the way: First and foremost, make every attempt to get out of his or her way.
- Put your pride aside: Do not challenge the aggressive driver by speeding up or attempting to hold your own in your travel lane.
- Avoid eye contact: Eye contact can sometimes enrage an aggressive driver.
- Gestures: Ignore gestures and refuse to return them.
- Report serious aggressive driving: You or a passenger may call the police. But, if you use a cell phone, pull over to a safe location.
Every 30 minutes, someone in this country dies in an alcohol-related crash. Last year alone, over one million people were injured in alcohol-related traffic crashes. In a lawsuit arising from a drunk driving accident, in addition to the intoxicated driver being held liable for the injuries he or she caused, a bar or social host may be liable for damages if they served an obviously intoxicated guest, who then drove and caused an accident. The fact that the person who served the intoxicated driver alcohol may be held liable does not relieve the intoxicated driver of liability, however. Because attorneys are aware of the many laws governing legal responsibility, an attorney can help you identify who might be held responsible for your injuries, including people or businesses you might not have considered.
Accidents that are Not Caused by the Drivers Involved
In certain cases, accidents are caused by factors unrelated to the conduct of any particular driver. For example, an automobile accident may occur due to a defect in someone's automobile. In such a case, an automobile manufacturer or supplier may be responsible for injuries caused by a defect in the automobile under the law of product liability. A product liability suit is a lawsuit brought against the seller of a product for selling a defective product that caused physical injury to a consumer or user. If a manufacturer of a product creates a defective product either in designing, manufacturing, or labeling the product the manufacturer is liable for any injuries the product causes, regardless of whether the manufacturer was negligent.
Another example of a situation where a driver may not be at fault for an accident is where a mechanic fails to properly repair a vehicle, and the failure causes an accident. In such a case, the person who improperly repaired the automobile, and his employer, may be liable for the injuries sustained under the theory of negligence.
Other factors, such as poorly maintained roads and malfunctioning traffic control signals can contribute to cause an accident as well. Improper design, maintenance, construction, signage, lighting or other highway defects, including poorly placed trees and utility poles, can also cause serious accidents. In cases such as this, government entities may be potential defendants. Special rules apply to claims and lawsuits brought against governmental bodies, however, and good legal advice is critical to preserving and winning such claims.
In all of the above cases, it is essential that measures be taken promptly to preserve evidence, investigate the accident in question, and have physicians or other expert witnesses thoroughly evaluate any injuries. Because an attorney can best help you accomplish all of these things, if you have been involved in an automobile accident, it is strongly recommended that you contact an attorney to evaluate your case as soon as possible.